ALTHOUGH nonproliferation is one of President Clinton's key foreign-policy priorities, officials this week will try to sell him and Congress on a scheme that would undermine what little progress we've made in blocking the spread of dangerous nuclear and missile technology.
A critical part of the package, which key Democratic and Republican legislators already oppose, would treat the export of ``peaceful'' rocket technology less restrictively than its military twin. Another, which also has raised congressional objections, would dress up this relaxation by promoting the mistaken notion that we can safeguard other nations' rocket and nuclear activities.
If adopted, this policy would undermine the first real successes the United States has had against missile proliferation, including ending missile programs in South Africa, Taiwan, and Argentina and getting Russia to curb its ``peaceful'' rocket sales to India. It also would needlessly condone the uneconomical worldwide ``civil'' production of vast quantities of weapons-usable nuclear materials at a time when the US and Russia have agreed to curb their military production.
Why would anyone propose such a policy? Officials make two arguments.
First, they argue that the dam of international commerce in these dangerous activities is about to break. Our best chance at moderating matters, officials say, is to get into the trade.
Second, diplomatic realism requires that we offer the good guys and reforming proliferators carrots to behave. What better carrot, they argue, than sharing under assurances and ``safeguards'' the technology that we want them to control?
All of this seems reasonable, particularly if one is anxious to skirt the proliferation problems that friends and other nations create when they initiate uneconomical, dangerous nuclear and rocket programs. Studies last year by the Commerce Department and the RAND Corporation concluded that initiating new ``peaceful'' space launch vehicle (SLV) programs is a sure-fire money loser for any nation not already launching commercial satellites for others.
As for safeguarding such activity, the RAND study was emphatic: One can no more safeguard an SLV against use as a ballistic missile, than one can guard against a ``peaceful'' nuclear explosive being employed as a bomb.
Dangerous ``civil'' nuclear activities, including the enrichment of uranium and the chemical reprocessing or separating of plutonium from spent reactor fuel, are no different. Both activities bring nations within days of having a bomb. Yet, both would be permitted under the proposal's worldwide ban on enrichment and reprocessing for ``military'' purposes. Thus, we would oppose North Korea's start up of plutonium reprocessing and unsafeguarded Pakistani uranium enrichment but allow the ``safeguarded'' start-up or continuation of these activities in Japan and Britain.
Although diplomatically attractive, in the short run, such nuclear activities hardly make economic or safeguards sense. The world is already awash with civil uranium enrichment capacity and trying to use highly toxic plutonium instead of cheap, safe uranium as reactor fuel is like trying to make quick money fueling autos with high-sulfur coal. Also, ``safeguarded'' enrichment and reprocessing would only make it easier for nations to acquire all they need to produce a bomb arsenal overnight.
Rather than try to safeguard the unsafeguardable, ignore economics, or attempt to promote one nonproliferation rule for friendly rich nations and another for hostile poor ones, we should focus on what's sound.
First, the US should reassure friendly nations that might proliferate (for example, the Ukraine, South Korea and, later, perhaps Japan) that we will do more for their security than any indigenous bomb or missile program could provide.
Second, the US should oppose any further start-ups of dangerous, uneconomical activities by hostile nations and by friendly ones. We should urge nations to drop reprocessing for any purpose, as we have, and try to work out how uranium enrichment's costs and benefits might be shared worldwide but the activity kept to nuclear-weapons nations as recognized under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Finally, we must encourage nations to distinguish between what is safeguardable and what is not. Failure to do so not only would promote more Iraqs and North Koreas, but it would put us in the business of safeguarding proliferation, something any new nonproliferation policy and the president should avoid.